Worldbuilding 6: The Trouble with Prophecy


I love a good fantasy or space opera that has convoluted plots filled with twists and reversals that all lead up to a satisfying ending.  Invariably such epic tales almost always involve a prophetic book or story about ‘The Chosen One’ or something like that (Dune, Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Matrix, Buffy etc…).

The problem with prophecy is this:

  1. If you have foreordained writings, in order for them to be actually prophetic, they have to come true.
  2. If they don’t come to pass, or the Chosen One somehow prevents Armageddon from happening, then the prophecy is false and that negates the Chosen One.

This all goes back to a long standing debate as to whether the universe is predetermined or if it allows for free will. Now, my world is predetermined, it has prophecy.  The characters know about the prophecy, they act according to what the prophecy says.  Some don’t believe in it, but don’t actively work against it.  Every bit of the prophecy has to come about the way it says it will.  No one can change it.

That can sound very restrictive, but it isn’t.  Some have different interpretations of the prophecy, some believe that it came about already or is many centuries ahead.  No one is absolutely sure and that’s the way prophecy should be seen in fiction, the same way it is seen in reality.

All too often I read or see prophetic stories that use it as decoration.  Everyone in that world believes in the prophecy completely.  The beginning of the prophecy comes about exactly the way it says.  And invariably, the hero gets to change the part of the prophecy that predicts the end of the world.  That doesn’t work for me.  It’s simple and contradictory and frankly unforgivable for a writer.

Quite frankly, prophecy in fiction is cheating.  It gives away the story, it tells the story now show it.

But there are exceptions where this works to the writer’s favor.

Take the recent re-launches of characters shows like Hannibal or Bates Motel.  Everyone knows where Dr. Lecter and Norman Bates end up.  We know they become psychopathic killers.  The fun part is seeing how they got there.

My novel deals with the War in Heaven, the prophecy speaks about one who will try to wrest the throne from God.  No surprises there.  The fun part is how I get a third of the angelic host to turn on a benevolent God and make it seem like a good idea.  My characters have to struggle with accepting or rejecting the prophecies and deal with disappointment when they don’t come to pass the way they think they should.

The real challenge when writing about prophecy has nothing to do with the Chosen One preventing the Thousand Years of Darkness from creeping over the face of the earth but how the Chosen One reacts when he realizes that he is responsible for that darkness and there’s nothing he can do about it.